In 2009, a co-worker of mine at the animal shelter where I worked took her own life. She was a kind, smart and a compassionate young woman with aspirations of becoming a veterinarian.

In this country, at least 47,000 people a year die from suicide. That’s one every two hours. It may surprise you to know that among the general population, veterinarians are nearly four times more likely to die from suicide.

Colleen Dougherty

Colleen Dougherty

If those of us working or volunteering in animal health and welfare find that number disturbing but not overly surprising, there’s a reason for that. According to the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, the suicide rate for animal welfare workers is also higher than the national average: 5.3 per million compared to 1.5 per million for the general population (the same as police officers and firefighters).

The reasons are many. For one, most people in helping professions are driven by empathy — the ability to resonate with the suffering of another, and compassion — the desire to do something to alleviate that suffering. But in this field, the work load never ceases, and it’s hard to feel you’ve alleviated suffering when that suffering never ends.

Couple that with low pay, lack of support (financial and otherwise) from government entities that hold the cards but don’t truly know the game, public perception as “bleeding hearts” or “puppy killers,” lack of investment by communities in solving animal welfare issues (such as overpopulation, breeding, neglect, etc.)

Long work hours, lack of proper nutrition and lack of rest tax us physically, mentally and emotionally. Ineffective laws and lack of legal follow through devalue the work of ACO’s who attempt to bring animal abusers to justice. Add to that a hefty load of guilt for not being able to do enough, then being blamed and chastised for things that are out of your control.

We start out with a dream, maybe even a “calling” to do this work. We prepare ourselves, go to school, land the job. Then we’re ready to take on the world and make it better!

In their book, “Compassion Fatigue in the Animal Care Community” (HSUS Press, 2006) Charles Figley and Robert Roop call that the first “phases” of being a helper. The third phase is “losing our breath.” And that’s just how it feels. We realize what we’re truly up against — and it takes our breath away, so fast and furious that it’s hard to catch it again.

But if “that which is to give light, must endure burning” (author unknown) is true, going down in a ball of flame is surely not the goal. Rather, we find that in the last two phases: “desperately seeking our rhythm” and ultimately, finding it.

This is where we decide to persevere. We find out what our gifts are, our strengths are and our skills. We “pay homage to the enormity of the challenges,” but also, and most importantly, we learn to value the work we do as part of the bigger picture.

After two mental health workers took their lives last week in our nation, Stacey Freedenthal, a therapist who attempted suicide early in life stated, “When something like this happens, it humbles me that we’re up against something really big ...” Indeed we are.

Take care of yourselves and each other, and don’t be afraid to reach out.

For help, contact the NMDOH Warmline at 1-855-466-7100; National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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